Call of Duty: Black Ops II is not really a cohesive game. In fact, it comes in three chunks: The single-player, the multiplayer, and the cooperative campaign.
And all of them are, surprisingly, worth playing. Treyarch was bored, clearly, and, unlike a lot of Call of Duty games, on this one, they actually put in an effort.
The result is probably not the best game of the year, but it is the first game in the series, in a long time, that's actually worth paying attention to. In short, it is worth your $60, even if it's not as good as it could have been. There's ambition here, and most of it is even achieved.
So let's break it out, and see why. If you're in a hurry, just play the YouTube clip at the top. Each sums up the section.
First, it must be said that the writing is better. Not great: It is David Goyer, and anybody who wants to object should sit through Blade: Trinity and The Uninvited first. But it is better at least in the sense that although the main bad guy is an enormous bastard, you do at least understand why he's an enormous bastard. Less clear is why the US and China would enter into a cold war so easily when both sides really don't want that, and the "AMERICA! F*** YEAH!" tone is still there, but at least there is at least the sense that somebody understands that Iran Contra was a bad thing. This is a substantial step up for a series still convinced we want to murder Russians en masse.
Secondly, the gameplay actually... rewards replay? Wait, is this a Call of Duty game? The game has multiple endings, and gameplay decisions will affect how certain situations, ranging from cutscenes to actual gameplay, plays out. It's not quite Dishonored in that respect, but it's nice to see.
Also, there are some odd real-time strategy missions called "Strike Force" missions that actually feel a lot like Brutal Legend. They're optional, and honestly, they stink in some respects. Your unit AI is terrible and gets killed too often, but you can jump in and beat the level like a straightforward side mission, and to win, you'll have to.
In addition, the overall gameplay is still ultimately just a rail shooter, and the level design never gets particularly clever, which is disappointing in light of the other single-player campaign. But you know what? They're trying and they didn't have to.
Frankly, this is the first game in the franchise that didn't feel like a chore to play, like the single-player was just an extended tutorial. Is it worth $60? Eh, not really. Worth $20, maybe. But this is just the first of three games.
As annoying as multiplayer is, it is worth noting that this is, by far, the part they worked on the most. It's very friendly to new players, especially with the "score streaks".
Unfortunately, nothing can detract from the fact that it's multiplayer, and worse, multiplayer as a sport instead of a fun time with friends. It's hard not to look at everything and feel not excited, but exhausted. The YouTube options especially make it clear that this is not about playing, anymore. It's about performing, it's about competing against other gamers for the amusement of others. And doing it for free.
Granted, this is optional but it's troubling. Yes, "eSports" is a "thing" now, and it's nice they're helping with that, but the overall sense feels like "Churn out free ads for us, on YouTube, for a year until the new one comes out", and then the whole process repeats. Urgh.
That said, it's good stuff if you like multiplayer, of course. So this is probably worth the $60 alone if that's your thing. If not, stay far, far away.
Hey, remember when video games didn't take themselves so seriously? When the mission statement was not "We must act like we are profound even when we're just shooting people in the face" but "Shooting stuff in a game is AWESOME!"
Yeah, this is that. And it's great.
This is a throwback in the best possible sense. Yes, it cribs, a lot, from Left 4 Dead, but so what? Who doesn't want more Left 4 Dead? This actually puts the emphasis on exploring, crafting, and above all, shooting zombies in the face. It feels like a very polished fan mod, which is meant in the best possible way: It's a game made by people who want to make it.
Even better, you're free to roam. Tranzit allows you (or some friends) to hop a bus and start traveling around, or you can explore on foot. There are plenty of unlocks and secrets to find, but you'll also probably get your face eaten.
Granted that it could be a little more user-friendly. Everything blends in so you'll find yourself on a pixel hunt, not unlike an adventure game. Except with hordes of undead, so at least you won't lack for things to do, or kill.
In addition, there's Grief mode, where you have two teams trying to feed each other to zombies. If that sounds fun... you have no idea just how much fun it really is.
This is blatantly a game Treyarch wanted to make separately from the franchise, but wasn't allowed to. So they put it in here. It's not perfect, but it's the right kind of dumb fun, and a refreshing change of pace. There's easily $60 worth of game here.
So, there you have it. No part is perfect... but every part is improved, and frankly, we'll take that over the alternative.